Customer expectations are ever changing. Market competition increases by the day. The regulatory environment is evolving. It is now more important than ever to maintain competitive advantage through the use of design led transformation.

Solving problems and transforming services through the application of design thinking is not a new concept.

The Design Council is the UK’s national strategic body for design. Back in 2004 they formed RED. It was wonderfully named a ‘do-tank’, largely in response to then Prime Minister Tony Blair’s desire to have public services ‘redesigned around the user, the patients, the passenger, the victim of crime’.

A year later, in 2005, Clearleft launched with the enduring mission ‘to advance the practice of design to transform organisations and impact people’s lives for the better’. While the RED team were focussed on helping government rethink the systems and structures of public services, many of the user-centred techniques they popularised became invaluable tools in also transforming commercial products and services.

One such example we still use today is the oft quoted ‘Double Diamond’ framework. It was recently updated by The Design Council to include the principles and culture required for design transformation to flourish.

At its heart the clear steps of a design process remain. The two diamonds neatly represent the initial need to understand a problem more deeply (divergent thinking) before taking focused action (convergent thinking).

Design Council design engagement
(Source: Design Council)

Perhaps because of its very ubiquity, this and other tools have attracted mild derision from surprising sources like the Government Digital Service (GDS). Possibly still giddy with the ongoing success of their breakthrough design work (the site won Design of The Year in 2013) Lou Downe wrote in 2016, ‘search online for service design right now and you’ll find a seemingly endless array of ‘toolkits’ and ‘design processes. Five circled grids. Double diamonds. Mental models. You’d be forgiven for thinking that it was about the process of design, rather than changing outcomes for users. For us, service design isn’t about mental models or double diamonds. It’s about working with users and delivering services’

So are the many tools developed by The Design Council and others in that particularly fecund period for design now mere objects of derision?

And more importantly, what has happened to the concept of design transformation since those heady days?

To tackle the first question…

As most of us realise, all models are flawed by definition, but the enduring power of the Design Council’s double diamond would suggest it is still a useful guide to understanding problems, working with users and creating transformational services (perhaps because it is so accessible to designers and non designers alike). We find this is particularly true when helping organisations that are less mature in their design transformation journey. It has certainly helped some of our clients adopt design thinking which has led to better outcomes for their customers.

To tackle the second question…

Put simply, in the last ten years or so the ‘transformation’ word has been entirely hijacked by the digital revolution. The need for organisations to transform their products and services through digital adoption has also spawned a vast and vocal industry of marketing automation software vendors, cloud computing providers, change management consultants and system integrators. In the headlong pursuit of ‘digital’ transformation, many organisations have lost sight of some of that Design Council inspired simplicity. Often, the actual user is the forgotten element in the race to implement that global automation platform or restructure that department around agile principles.

Which is why the need for design transformation has never been greater.

All transformations are hard and many fail. But without a more holistic approach that puts people at the heart of solving complex problems, that situation will not improve.

At Clearleft we recognise that design thinking can encourage businesses to put people first so that their true needs, small wins and pain points can be fully understood. This insight can lay the groundwork for the successful implementation of new software or ways of working.

Design transformation is not in competition with digital transformation. Quite the reverse. By using design thinking from the outset, all the relevant stakeholders are brought into the process. This makes any subsequent change management process much smoother and ensures that user needs are catered for, paving the way for successful delivery.

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